5 Things to Watch in Patriots' Preseason Week 2 Matchup vs. Eagles
The only things that can derail the New England Patriots' season are injuries.
In that sense, we'll get a good look at some of their plan B's in Friday night's game against the Philadelphia Eagles, set to kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET at Gillette Stadium. Several key players are missing from the Patriots lineup, and some backups will be thrust into the spotlight just as they were in 2013.
We'll also get our first look at a couple of the cornerstones of the 2014 Patriots, in the form of a few players who were held out of last week's action. This will be our first glimpse of the team's biggest free-agent acquisition, cornerback Darrelle Revis, in a Patriots uniform. It will also be our first look at quarterback Tom Brady since the 2013-14 AFC Championship Game on January 19.
With a team that looks poised to head back to that game this year, there is never a shortage of story lines. Here's a look at five things to watch as the Patriots get set for their second preseason game against the Eagles.
Who Fills in for Jerod Mayo?
Linebacker Jerod Mayo missed most of the 2013 season with a torn pectoral muscle. He is being counted on to bring some stability at the second level, but he has missed the past three practices for unknown reasons.
The Patriots have been running a 4-3 defense for the past few seasons but have shown signs that they could be switching to a 3-4 defense this year. In those looks, Mayo has been manning one of the two middle linebacker spots, with Jamie Collins at his side and with a mix of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Dont'a Hightower on the outside.
Hightower could move to the middle next to Collins, with Jones and Ninkovich still on the outside. It's also possible that Steve Beauharnais could get some opportunities in one of those inside spots. One more name to watch is Darius Fleming, who has shown up in the nickel defense with regularity during practice.
There's no reason to panic about Mayo's health just yet, but it will be intereseting to see what their backup plan will be: Could the injury push them to go back to a 4-3 defense for the time being? Or will they shuffle the board with Mayo out of the picture?
How Do the Patriots Use Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner?
This will be the first time Revis suits up for the Patriots in a game. In training camp, he has played mostly on one side of the field. The Patriots have asked their corners to play this way in the past, and while we don't expect them to tip their defensive hand in the preseason, they may give their corners some opportunities to practice doing what they'll be doing in the regular season.
That being said, a talent like Revis probably doesn't need to practice tracking a receiver man to man—it's second nature to him at this point.
Another interesting development in the secondary is the battle over who will start opposite Revis. Brandon Browner looks like the front-runner for that spot, but he will be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Other players like Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler have been getting opportunities lining up opposite Revis in practice.
Who's Starting on the Offensive Line?
Ryan Wendell has been the starter at center for the past two seasons, but the Patriots drafted Bryan Stork to compete with him for the center spot. When Stork went down with an injury, the line started shuffling, and Dan Connolly has been the top center, which has created some confusion as to who will be the top right guard—Jordan Devey and Josh Kline have been competing for those reps.
The Patriots seem pretty set at offensive tackle, right? With Nate Solder on the left and Sebastian Vollmer on the right, there doesn't appear to be any competition brewing on the surface.
In practice, however, we've seen a much different story. Solder and Vollmer have shared reps with third-year offensive lineman Marcus Cannon, who filled in at right tackle when Vollmer went down last year. Cannon is probably a better fit at guard, but he continues to get opportunities with the first-team offense at left and right tackle.
Who knows whether this is a competition or a sign of an unknown injury for Solder (who left practice early on Thursday), but unless it gets corrected before the season begins, some serious questions could be on the horizon. In the past, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia would get the ship righted before it was too late. He retired this year, though, and has been replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo.
The spotlight could burn pretty bright on "The Guge" if the offensive line underperforms.
How Does Patriots' Thin Defensive Line Respond Against Eagles' Rush Attack?
The Philadelphia Eagles were one of the league's best teams at running the football, with LeSean McCoy finishing the 2013 season as the league's leading rusher with 1,607 yards on the ground.
The Patriots, on the other hand, were victimized on run defense thanks to a slew of injuries at defensive tackle and linebacker. Mayo will most likely miss the game, but Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly will be ready to go. How do they hold up in the running game? They did not fare well against the Eagles offensive line in practice, so it will be interesting to see if that changes in the game or if the trend continues.
The Patriots have also done quite a bit of shuffling at defensive tackle, trading for Jerel Worthy from the Green Bay Packers, as reported by Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, and Ben Bass from the Dallas Cowboys, with news of the deal coming from Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com.
Players like Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga were thrust into an unkind situation last year, but they are still one injury away from a big role.
On that note, Siliga (hand) and Jones (left ankle) have been dealing with injuries of their own, which might have prompted the trades. We may not see Worthy, Bass, Jones, Siliga or even rookie Dominique Easley, who has yet to practice in team drills. It appears that once again, the Patriots' depth at defensive tackle will be tested.
Who Gets the Top Opportunities at Tight End?
The Patriots' tight end situation is bordering on tragic. Rob Gronkowski remains limited at Patriots practice. The extent of his participation in team drills has been three snaps on one series in joint practices with the Eagles on Wednesday. Veteran backups Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams have missed the past week-plus of practice with undisclosed injuries.
Behind that, it's been just as bad. The Patriots signed two undrafted rookies, Asa Watson and Justin Jones, and cut them both within the first three weeks of camp. They recently signed Terrence Miller, Ben Hartsock and Steve Maneri, but four days later, only Maneri remains.
In fact, he is the only fully healthy true tight end on the roster.
We could see more snaps at tight end for fullback James Develin, who has lined up there at times in practice, but he still looks far less than natural as a route-runner despite having sure hands.
The Patriots could be more flexible in their offensive formations this year, perhaps going with more wide receivers in lieu of tight ends, but they would surely rather have the presence of the game-changing Gronkowski. What they do in his stead could give us a look at the current state of their backup plan if Gronkowski isn't ready for Week 1.
All training camp notes obtained firsthand.